Officer suspended over Taser death

A Charlotte-Mecklenburg police officer has been suspended for violating policy when he shocked a teen with a Taser gun for about 37 seconds, contributing to the teen's death.

Police announced Wednesday that Officer Jerry Dawson Jr. held the Taser trigger until 17-year-old Darryl Turner fell to the floor during a confrontation at a north Charlotte grocery store. The officer later shocked Turner a second time for five seconds.

Turner, who worked at the grocery store, died from cardiac arrest. The autopsy showed the teenager's heart was pumping so fast and chaotically from the stress of the confrontation and the Taser shot that it stopped pumping blood properly.

“We have deep regret and sympathy for that family. Officer Dawson also is in a great deal of pain,” said Deputy Chief Ken Miller, who oversees training. “Nobody feels good about the outcome.”

Prosecutors announced last week they would not charge Dawson, and found his use of force appropriate under N.C. law.

But police suspended Dawson, a 15-year veteran, for five days without pay. They released a surveillance video from the store Wednesday and more details about the March 20 confrontation.

Dawson, 39, will receive additional training on the proper use of a Taser.

His suspension follows an internal affairs investigation and a private hearing Tuesday before a review board of his supervisors, internal affairs investigators and a civilian.

“After a thorough review of the evidence, the board determined that the initial decision to discharge the Taser was within our procedures, but the prolonged use of the Taser was not,” police said.

A Taser is a weapon that typically uses compressed nitrogen to shoot two tethered needle-like probes that penetrate skin and deliver an electric shock. It's designed to temporarily subdue a person.

CMPD teaches officers to pull and immediately release the Taser trigger to deliver a five-second shock. Officers may repeatedly pull the trigger in extreme circumstances when necessary to control a suspect. Holding down the trigger violates department policy.

Police said they're reviewing their Taser policies.

In 2005, after reports raised questions about Taser safety, CMPD prohibited prolonged shocks because they appeared to increase the risk for respiratory failure, Miller said.

Unlike some police departments, CMPD does not limit how many times an officer can shock a suspect, although it encourages officers to minimize their use of force.

Officer Dawson told investigators that he held down the trigger because the shock did not subdue Turner. Despite commands to stop, police said, Turner stepped toward the officer then walked past him.

“He didn't think he was getting the full energy so he held it,” Miller said. “He was afraid if he undid it, Turner would be violent and possibly harm the store manager or himself.”

Turner's death was the first Taser-related fatality in the CMPD's history. It happened during a three-month period earlier this year when police also shot five suspects with firearms – killing one and wounding four. Not since the fall of 1998 had police used deadly force as frequently.

Officers used Tasers about 100 times in both 2005 and 2006.

Surveillance video from the Food Lion shows Turner at the customer service desk, knocking over a display, then throwing an umbrella. Turner then moves closer to a store manager and employee, at one point raising his arm and pointing at the manager. A customer at the desk pushes her child away from the confrontation.

Officer Dawson is shown walking through the front door, and seconds later, carrying what appears to be his Taser. Dawson approaches Turner with the Taser pointed at him. Turner takes a step toward the officer, then continues to walk past him. It's unclear from the video when Turner is shocked, but police say it happened as Turner stepped toward the officer.

Turner then walks toward the front door, followed closely by Dawson, whose Taser remains attached to Turner.

Both then walk out of the camera's view.

Mecklenburg District Attorney Peter Gilchrist said Wednesday his office made the right decision in not prosecuting Dawson.

“The fact that the police department has decided he violated policies does not make the actions of the officer a criminal offense,” Gilchrist said.

Turner family attorney Ken Harris disputes prosecutors' claim that the use of force was appropriate. Harris said Wednesday he's had concerns about how long Turner was shocked.

“We're happy that this information, including the videotape, has been released to the public,” said Harris, who is considering a lawsuit over the death. “We look forward to a jury interpreting the videotape.”

Turner's mother says her son came home for lunch on March 20 and told her he'd stolen a couple of Hot Pockets from the store. Tammy Fontenot said she told her son to return to the store and admit what he'd done.

Turner returned to work after lunch, and a supervisor told him to remove a lollipop from his mouth and tuck in his shirt. The teenager began cursing, prosecutors said.

The supervisor contacted the store manager to inform him what was happening. She told him she felt threatened and was going to call police.

Here's what police said happened then:

Dawson responded to a call around 1:15 p.m. about a disturbance at the Food Lion on Prosperity Church Road.

When Dawson arrived, he saw Turner throwing objects at the store manager and yelling. The officer also saw Turner walk toward store personnel in a threatening manner.

Dawson ordered Turner to stop. But Turner turned and started to walk toward Dawson, police said. That's when Dawson discharged his Taser.

Turner continued to walk while he was being shocked, then grabbed a small store rack and threw it across the floor.

“Officer Dawson held the trigger of the Taser down until Mr. Turner fell to the ground,” the police statement said. “The continuous duration of this discharge was approximately 37 seconds.”

Police said Dawson then ordered Turner to put his hands behind his back. When the teen didn't comply, Dawson discharged his Taser again, this time shocking the teen for five seconds.

Police Chief Rodney Monroe pledged in a statement Wednesday that he will release as much information as possible about such cases of public interest, as long as it doesn't interfere with an investigation or violate personnel laws.